Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 31° Track 48° Humidity 59% Wind 1.2 m/s
Well Well, the original headline for the session was going to be Gasly Torpedoes Kvyat, at least until the rising star of the FIA’s tech division, Marcin Budkowski, shocked the paddock with his resignation, causing great consternation that he might take his intimate knowledge of everyone’s plans for next years cars with him to a team, rumoured to be Renault. This was followed by a lot of muttering about the FIA perhaps not tending to it’s own backyard as carefully as it should, once it emerged Budkowski’s gardening leave was a mere 3 months, leaving him well positioned to drop a great deal of very expensive knowledge wherever he winds up. And rightfully so, as the industry standard for these sorts of positions is usually more along the lines of a year. Might as well start popping the popcorn now, as this one’s got some legs.
But then the racing reasserted itself as the lead player once Mercedes’ development package led to their worst Friday practice of the year. They showed up Saturday with a split strategy, Bottas with the updates with Hamilton reverted to the Singapore package. That state of affairs persisted into the qualifying session, suggesting true opportunity for Ferrari to close the gap. Of course, as usual, the tires were a primary motivator, with the pressures again being changed overnight in response to Friday data/complaints.
Which also could’ve been a headline until Vettel’s engine #3 decided it didn’t want to play, leading to the last PU being chunked in last minute. The question of whether their shiny new additively manufactured (fancy speak for 3D printed) piston was along for the ride being neither confirmed nor denied in typical Ferrari fashion.
Green Light!! Grosjean, Wehrlein, and Ericcson were first out. Hamilton was next out, on the Soft tyre. The Raikkonen card was played in response, also on the Softs and with Vettel’s car under repair, it was possible that he would’nt be out till later in the session, though no doubt Ferrari were keen to get him out on an installation lap as soon as possible. 2 minutes in and the track was filled as the early runners embarked on their hot laps, picking their way through those just beginning their out laps.
Hamilton to the top with a 1:32.380 on the Soft tyre with Ocon just behind as the early runners began lighting up the timing screens. Raikkonen, who started 30 seconds or so behind the Merc and was the first serious challenger to the top time, then flashed across the line to take P1, 0.01s up on the Brit, bouncing Ocon to P3 as Vettel circled the track, putting his brand new PU into action for the first time. And not a happy time as without setting a time, he radioed in he was limping back with 11 minutes left, saying he had no turbo, the one component that has been long reckoned to be his weakest link due to the fact he barbecued one early in the season. Ruh Roh!
As that drama played out Red Bull finally came out to play and it was P2 for Verstappen and P5 for Danny Ric, both on the Soft tyre, matching the strategy of Ferrari and Mercedes. Bottas banged out a P3 and with 8 minutes left all eyes were on the pitwall at Ferrari, trying to read the tea leaves with regards to Vettel’s stricken ride.
Further back it was a P12 for Sainz and P16 for Gasly roughly 0.4s between them. 6 minutes to go and the normal accounting was put on hold as the mechanics stared blankly into the back of Sebastian’s car, absolutely no work taking place, suggesting terminal failure or unidentified issue.
4 minutes to go and they fired the engine, fixed or not. Gasly, Wehrlein, Grosjean and Ericsson before him all had work to do to stave off being eliminated in Q3. AS the rest trundled forth, Vettel sat and sat and finally, it was done. Engine off with 1 minute left, Game Over.
Massa hit the line for P5 right before the checquers dropped. Gasly was right behind him and P8, AHEAD of Sainz, Magnussen to P9 as Stroll and Grosjean had all the work to do. P14 for Stroll endangered Palmer, who then slammed a P9 AHEAD of the Hulk leaving Grosjean, Magnussen, Wehrlein, Ericsson and of course Vettel off for some teh tarik as their day was done. The rest turned it round in pursuit of all the glory as Q2 loomed.
Q2 was led off by Bottas and Hamilton, as the odd dark cloud swirled about overhead, SuperSofts sported by all. Bottas was first off, his early purpling of S1 immediately bypassed by Hamilton. Raikkonen hit the line about 30 seconds back and it was a Personal Best but Hamilton on top in S1. S2 was a different story as Hamilton bested Bottas with a 1:31.009 about 0.01s up as Red Bull fired up their challenge.
And it was Raikkonen to the top with a 1:30.926!! The Red Bulls on a fast lap were the last challenge for Mercedes and it was Verstappen, confirming the performance of Singapore up to P2, splitting the Ferrari and Mercedes and leaving his teammate Ricciardo P5.
7 minutes to go and only Palmer had yet to set a time, his first lap apparently spoiled by traffic. P10 when all was said and done for Jolyon and Vandoorne, Perez, Sainz, Gasly, and Stroll were on the outside looking in as the teams got ready for their final shot at the glory of Q3. NB Vandoorne was not running the updated barge boards, which according to McLaren were doing quite well for them. No matter, a set at Suzuka had been promised but a reminder that level playing fields in the sport can be elusive, even between drivers on the same team.
3 minutes to go and the runners started to emerge with Palmer, Stroll and Ocon to be last across the line. Hamilton, Bottas and Ricciardo were all somewhat unusually in the mix, as normally the top of the leaderboard don’t bother if they’re happy with their tyres.
Under the 1 minute to go and they were off, Hamilton again with a purple S1 followed by a Personal Best S2. but it was Bottas ahead with the early marker to P1 a full tenth up on Raikkonen. Across the line and no improvement for Hamilton still P4. AS Ocon complained of traffic, it was Vandoorne, not bad for a #2 driver, ahead of Alonso in P9. Successively, Massa, Palmer and Stroll failed to make the top 10, followed by Sainz and Gasly. They were off in search of G&T’s (well, at least the ones that were old enough) as the top 10 got ready to tilt for all the glory and no doubt a bit of soul searching at Mercedes as Hamilton, similar to what happened in FP3, was unable to improve his placing with the second run, though he did up the time. With the top 4 covered by less than 0.2s it was all to play for.
Vandoorne and Ocon led the way into the last session, followed about a minute later by the trio of Bottas, Hamilton and Raikkonen. Verstappen was the tail gunner of the field, last to cross the line on his hot lap.
Bottas led the way, early lockup into T1 doing him no favours. Advantage Hamilton who had been owning S1 throughout every session,. S2 and Hamilton again took purple and then it was the trifecta!! Up to a 1:30.076 for Lewis, a proper lap indeed. Raikkonen P2 0.2s back with Ricciardo P3 as everyone awaited Verstappen. But P4 was the best Max could do and as they ran their warm down lap, it was Bottas with all the pressure to make up for his error on his first lap. Behind the top 5, it was Perez who outpointed Ocon, followed by Vandoorne and Alonso. Hulkenberg had kept his powder dry for the second runs and had yet to set a time.
Systems issue for Hamilton on his first run, according to Sky, and he had to use the Race Start mode for 10 seconds on his outlap to reset the electronics. This apparently did not please him, and he was on the radio asking for it to be sorted before the second runs.
Ricciardo was first out of the gate for the last runs, Hulkenberg and Verstappen trailing, This time it was Bottas, Hamilton and Ocon as the next trio on the road, and Raikkonen leaving it to the last, darting onto the track with under 2 minutes left to the checquers.
On his outlap Hamilton radioed in he was down on power, but the team said it looked normal on the telemetry and to carry on. Ricciardo hit the line and was off with a Personal Best through S1. Ricciardo couldn’t improve his placing, though, as the Hulk took an early P6. Verstappen confirmed his P3 and whatever the reason, Hamilton didn’t improve his time. All eyes were locked on Raikkonen as he started to carve time from Lewis provisional pole as the last runner. Into S3, pole position in sight for Kimi, a light lock up as he approached the last corner and across the line, a mere 0.045s behind Lewis, the time drifting behind him in a cloud of tyre smoke, dissipated in the breeze.
Bottas was unable to improve and went P5, lost in the drama of Raikkonen, whilst Verstappen came through and displaced his teammate, the Bulls going P3 and P4. Ocon also showed up in a big way, best of the rest P6 whilst Perez found his way forward in the race tomorrow blocked by both Vandoorne and Hulkenberg, who split the Force Indias with their efforts. Perez and Alonso filled out the last of the top 10, a surprising underperformance from the pair.
Very much a woulda coulda shoulda for Vettel, watching the timing screens, no doubt in his mind, as well as many observers, that with a healthy PU pole position was very much his for the taking. Toto Wolff confirmed as much in a post race interview, saying that the cooling track temps benefited their performances. Also confirmed was that the updates were doing what was expected and would be tried again at Suzuka, with much head scratching from the engineers in between the races, no doubt.
Given Mercedes lack of confidence, the race tomorrow looks to be quite promising in terms of P1, but barring rain or crashes it’s bad news indeed for the championship at least at the start. It’s far from given that Lewis will be able to maintain a P1, however, with tyre temps and degradation having long been an issue for Mercedes at this track. Assuming Vettel’s PU works properly and he finishes the race, a top 5 position isn’t out of the question. Properly speaking then, it’s going to be Red Bull playing the joker and the start will likely see Wolff and the pitwall boffins chewing their nails off. Utterly fascinating set up for tomorrow’s race, the final Malaysian Grand Prix. Oh yes, there’s always rain to consider as well!!
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